Sunday, November 4, 2007

When child welfare systems go to pot

California has legalized the use of medical marijuana. One can obtain it with a prescription. But they don’t stock it at the local CVS. So co-ops have sprung up across the state. But while the state says it’s legal, the federal government says it’s not. So the Drug Enforcement Administration has been raiding the co-ops.

But they don’t stop with arresting the adults who run the stores and confiscating the marijuana. They make sure to phone the local child protective services agency to try to get them to confiscate the children.

In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, Ronnie Naulls was prescribed marijuana for chronic pain resulting from an auto accident in 2001. He opened a co-op so he and other patients would not have to drive long distances to obtain medical marijuana.

Naulls had always understood he could be raided, he understood his home might be trashed, he even understood he might face jail. But, he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, he never thought child protective services would take his children, ages 1, 3 and 5. "If I would have known my kids would be taken away, I never would have done this. I never thought this would happen."

Naulls’ lawyer, James Anthony, didn’t see it coming either. "I warn all my dispensary clients that the federal government will try to capture and imprison you, but it hadn't occurred to me that the government will also kidnap your children," Anthony told the online newsletter Drug War Chronicle. "It's just unbelievable, barbaric."

(Even Mr. Anthony doesn’t quite get it, however. Among the reasons he says CPS was out of line is because the Naulls family lives in “a nice middle-class home.” So if Mr. Naulls also were poor and the home was messy this would be o.k.?)

The children were trapped in foster care for five weeks. The first time the oldest child, the five-year-old, was allowed to speak to her father by phone she said: "Daddy, we're ready to come home now, we promise to be good."

Of course, just because DEA calls a child protective services agency doesn’t mean the agency has to be idiotic enough to traumatize innocent children in order to aid and abet the feds’ war on medical marijuana. But Mr. Naulls had the misfortune to live in Riverside County. As NCCPR’s California Rate of Removal Index shows, of all California’s larger counties none is more enamored of a take-the-child-and-run approach than Riverside. A high-profile death of a child “known to the system” almost certainly has made the county’s record even worse.

But even as caseworkers stage protests over unmanageable loads, somehow, Riverside County CPS found time to harass the Naulls family and traumatize the children. One can only wonder how much real maltreatment they missed while they were doing so.

And Riverside is not alone in this practice. One group advocating for medical marijuana patients told Drug War Chronicle they’ve gotten 30 or 40 calls about similar cases in the past couple of years “and those are just the people who call us.”

Given everything we know about how much harm needless foster care can do to children, one can only contemplate the actions of Riverside County CPS and wonder: What are these people smoking?